Issues of meritocracy (or lack thereof) plus all the layers in between is currently a hot button issue for Singapore. While the government defends its stance on meritocracy staunchly, insisting that the system works, critics have come to the fore to question its continued relevance as is. Assuming for the purposes of the article that our current system of meritocracy works to provide accessible social mobility to all, why does that meritocracy seem to stop right after our formal education ends? Shouldn’t meritocracy be a life long process with opportunities to be accessible at all levels?
In Singapore, grades are all important. The grind to excel academically starts early and our young are streamed and re-streamed in a process that begins at 9 and does not end until our late teens. With each streaming exercise, each kid is given a label and sent on his or her way, without regard for late bloomers. It is a one size fits all approach that will end with a scholar landing a coveted government job which will enable him or her to move across government bodies and statutory boards for the entirety of that individual’s working life.
In other words, if you do well as a student, your career is set while if you make one misstep in your tender years, it could forever haunt you. Is this unforgiving system a representation of true meritocracy?
I am of course making a generalisation. Students who do not do well in the system in Singapore from families with means will always have the option of going overseas to further their studies. They can then rejoin the system after their academic misadventures in Singapore have been whitewashed by a broader and less rigid foreign qualification. But what about the students who do not have the opportunity to pursue this avenue? They are yet again disadvantaged by the meritocracy that we have.
There are also the exceptions who manage to break the system by beating the odds and rejoining the system at the top either through sheer grit, a stroke of luck or both. While the government loves to trot out the rags to riches stories, it is important to note that these are not the norm. These individuals have succeeded despite the system and not because of it.
I go back to my original question. Does our “meritocracy” start and end too early?
It is my belief that jobs in the government should not be simply given out to scholars who will then be groomed by the government to higher power. It is not equitable for people between the young ages of 19-26 to have their careers mapped out for them when others have to claw their way through the private sector which is much more competitive. Should you get an easy ride to power just because you have done well in school exams? Student life is after all not the same as working life.
Meritocracy has to be a lifelong process. In our brand of meritocracy, that is often not the case.